February is National Pet Dental Health Month, so let’s talk about the importance of dental health for your pet. Dental exams are very important, yet sometimes are placed on a lesser-priority list than an overall health exam. However, dental health and exams are equally as important. Poor oral health is often a sign of the dog’s overall health and can impact the whole body. Periodontal diseases may cause bacteria and toxins to enter the body with negative effects, while dogs with poor systemic health may have periodontal issues as well.
We usually think of white shiny teeth as an example of a well-balanced and nourished dog. Some dogs with brilliant white “smiles” can have dental disease hidden in and under the gum line. Unfortunately, not all dogs have radiant “smiles.” Many dogs have severe plaque and tartar that accumulates on their teeth, similarly to humans. Plaque is caused by proteins from the saliva that interact with the bacteria naturally found in your dog’s mouth, as well as from bacteria from the environment. If plaque is left for long periods of time, it can multiply and invade the gums, causing inflammation called gingivitis.
For senior dogs and for small dogs, plaque accumulation can develop quickly. Tartar forms when minerals from your dog’s saliva hardens plaque and becomes a ‘crust’. In cases of gingivitis, bacteria that are in your dog’s mouth can cross into the bloodstream. This “showering” of bacteria has been linked to kidney disease and harmful bacterial growth on the valves of the heart. This bacterial growth can change the valve’s function, leading to heart murmurs and even heart failure.
Dental Exams are extremely important in maintaining healthy teeth and gums. It’s recommended that you check your dog’s teeth at least once a month and take your dog for an examination every 6 months to a year. Large dogs are found to have fewer problems with plaque buildup and the consequent gingivitis, however large dogs can sometimes have tooth fractures from the power of their jaws. Small breeds, particularly toy breeds like Yorkshire terriers, are more prone to issues with tartar buildup and gum disease. Frequent examinations of your dog’s oral health are important due to the fact that tooth and gum diseases may start at any time.
What will the veterinarian look for? The vet will start by looking at your dog’s facial structure and the tissues around it. Unusual swellings can be a sign of dental or jaw diseases such as tooth root abscesses. The severity of tartar, plaque and gingivitis will be noted. The enamel will be evaluated and checked for cracks and wear patterns. If your dog has been chewing on too-hard toys or treats, their teeth may be worn down to the interior of the tooth, known as the pulp. Exposed pulp can lead to pain and infection. Certain breeds may have crowded teeth or retained baby teeth that can be sources of infection. Your veterinarian can determine from the exam when the next dental cleaning will be necessary.
There are several contributing factors to dental issues. Genetics play a large role! — the conformation and structure of your dog’s mouth may also cause problems. Some dogs have strong oral chemistry (lysozymes) that helps prevent excess bacterial growth. Saliva plays a very important role in your dog’s dental health but it does not contain the amylase enzyme responsible for the digestion of carbohydrates like in humans. Therefore the starches tend to stick to their teeth causing plaque and tartar build up. This may irritate the gums and dogs are more prone to gingivitis while humans are more prone to cavities from the carbohydrates (sugar). Saliva in a dog may act solely as a lubricant for swallowing and to moisten food before it reaches the stomach. Saliva does not really aid digestion in pets!
Diet is also exceedingly important, although controversial. Many holistic veterinarians believe that the excess amounts of carbohydrates and sugars found in commercial dog foods are to credit for the buildup of plaque and tartar. Some believe, although controversial, that feeding a raw diet, complete with raw meaty bones such as chicken necks and backs, can help to reverse poor dental health and create stronger teeth and gums. Based on my experience, dog that eat bones and cats that hunt mice usually have nicer looking teeth. Although I am still a bit wary of recommending raw bones in pets because of the potential of leading to a bowel obstruction, they need to be considered for proper dental health. This is a pretty good article by a trusted source about feeding raw bones in pets from the Integrative Veterinary Care Journal. There are veterinary prescribed dental diets for pets like Medical Dental, Sc. Diet t/d and Purina DH that may help reduce tartar and maintain dental health in some pets. These types of diets may provide an alternative to some clients.
There are also some dental toys, gels, water additives and dental treats available on the market that are intended to help keep your dog’s teeth clean and healthy. Unfortunately, these toys and treats do not work for every individual. For some dogs, these items can be greatly beneficial, while for others, these products either do not help, and may even result in broken teeth, bleeding gums, or intestinal blockages from ingestion. Only products approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC.org) have passed minimum required protocols to prove their efficacy. You can find a list of products that have proven the ability to help reduce tartar/plaque in pets at http://vohc.org/accepted_products.htm . Always consult with your veterinarian to see what he or she recommends for your pet.
Some pets like to eat rawhide and pig ears and they can help mechanically abrade off some tartar but they have been cases of contamination of these treated by salmonella and other pathogenic bacteria. Also, remember that these types of treats are high in fat and not recommended if your pet is overweight.
Getting your dog’s teeth cleaned regularly can help to keep the plaque and tartar in check. Routine periodontal treatments include ultrasonic scaling of plaque and tartar, manual scalingof plaque and tartar, and polishing. Teeth cleanings are performed under anesthesia, so it is typically a stress-free operation for your dog. In the US, it is now standard of care to have dental radiographs performed at the time of cleaning. In Canada, dental radiographs are not offered at every clinics and it may be a few years before we see them being offered everywhere. These radiographs are fast and can expose potentially painful tooth root abscesses and structural problems. If any loose or infected teeth are present, they can be removed painlessly.
It is important to brush your dog’s teeth daily between professional cleanings. Teaching a puppy to accept having their teeth brushed is usually easy. Some puppies learn to enjoy it. Start slow and introduce them to the idea of having someone touching their teeth and gums. You can even teach your older dog to sit for brushing with a little patience and reward-based training. Be careful to avoid human toothpaste, as some contain foaming agents that can irritate your dog’s stomach, while others contain xylitol, which is toxic to dogs. Only brush your dog’s teeth with enzymatic toothpaste that is specifically made for use in pets.
Even with regular brushing at home, it’s still important to have your dog’s teeth checked even professionally cleaned when needed. Keep in mind that the old proverb that “an ounce of prevention is worth pound of cure” is certainly true when it comes to home dental care. Daily brushing and monitoring will keep disease at bay and early treatment can prevent your dog (and wallet) from having to endure extensive dental procedures at the veterinarian.
Written by Dr Cindy Lizotte, DVM, MBA, CVFT (CHI institute), CVA (IVAS), Grad Dip Vet Western Herb Med (CIVT) Cert CVHM (IVAS)